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Grasping the nettle

28 September 2012

Islam doesn't escape critical scrutiny here, Lavinia Byrne finds


The God debate in the Early Church: a mosaic depicting the baptism of Jesus. It was commissioned by a follower of Arius, whose teaching about the relation of the Father to the Son was condemned at Nicaea in 325. This is an illustration from the book reviewed below

The God debate in the Early Church: a mosaic depicting the baptism of Jesus. It was commissioned by a follower of Arius, whose teaching about the re...

In the Shadow of the Sword: The battle for global empire and the end of the ancient world
Tom Holland
Little, Brown £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT231 )

TOM HOLLAND may be more familiar to readers through his contributions to the media, as the presenter of BBC Radio 4's series Making History, than through his numerous publications. In both, however, he has a gift for bringing the past to life, and a passion for the ancient world.

A bold contention lies at the heart of his most recent work; for he is intrigued by the factors that enabled the Arabs to succeed where both Romans and Persians failed, namely how they managed to create a new Empire: the Islamic world that spread from India to North Africa and beyond with such lightning speed so soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. They conquered where warring armies, plague, and earthquakes had failed.

To examine this, Holland has to unpick what went before; so he undertakes a rattlingly good survey of all the players in the ancient world. Persians, Romans, Zoroas­trians, Jews, and Christians are ex­amined in turn - with a particu­larly insightful exploration into the history of Constantinople - as he analyses the "precise parabola of their existence".

Then he turns his attention to Islam - and the book's originality derives from the conviction with which he grasps the nettle. The electrifying stuff begins. He raises questions about the provenance and status of the final or current version of the Qur'an (ratified only in 1924). He examines the origins of Muhammad's vision of paradise; he details the influences that would have come from the Prophet's con­text; he explains where the "Hadith" came from; and finally - and most contro­versially - he uses internal evidence from the Qur'an itself to question where the revelations took place.

How, for instance, can the locus of Muhammad's revelations be Arabia when they describe life in a fertile land rather than an arid wilderness? How can we ignore references to the cave beside the Dead Sea where Lot is alleged to have taken shelter after the destruc­tion of Sodom, and which the text claims: "You pass by morning and night"?

Biblical scholarship has had a firm grasp on the Christian im­a-gina­tion for more than 100 years. Will Islam embrace a similar discipline? Will this detailed and intricate book be laughed out of court by friends and enemies alike, or will it open doors in all our minds, as is surely the author's intention?

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broad­caster.

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